Some years ago, the PGA of America produced an advertisement that extolled the virtues of its club professionals and detailed the many things they have to do – and do well – to prosper in their business. Like merchandising golf apparel and mentoring aspiring assistants. Teaching lessons and running tournaments. Handling rules disputes and dealing with club politics.
Another item on the list was playing. With their members, to be sure, but also in competitions on local and national levels. And that made good sense, for PGA club professionals are first and foremost golfers, and the vast majority of them developed their initial passions for the game as players.
It was a powerful bit of promotion that spoke to the many talents PGA members possess. But it inadvertently highlighted an increasingly difficult part of that job, and that is maintaining a high level of skill as a player. The job of club professional now entails so many different aspects and demands that it is difficult for many to find the time to practice and play.
There simply are not enough hours in the day anymore to nurture a game that truly holds up in competition, especially when that competition includes golfers who play the game for a living. Then, there is the cold truth that teeing it up in tournaments sometimes can be a detriment to the employment security of a club professional, as some clubs prefer that their professionals be around their shops and practice ranges, and not trying to go low in competition.
With those matters in mind, it is hard not to admire the PGA club professional who plays – and plays well – as he, or she, handles all the other duties the position entails. In fact, that talent is something worth celebrating, and perhaps no one in the modern era has demonstrated more deftness in that area than Bob Ford. And for that reason, he is our inaugural Pro’s Pro.
Now 61, Ford is the head golf professional at Oakmont Country Club outside Pittsburgh and Seminole Golf Club in Juno Beach, Fla. And he deserves great praise for holding jobs at two such powerful retreats. Some observers have come to quite reasonably regard his work at those clubs as the corporate equivalent of running IBM for one half of the year and GE for the other. But what makes Ford’s record as a head golf professional even more notable is that he has managed to distinguish himself as a player at the same time.
For example, he has qualified and played in 10 PGA Championships, the first in 1981 and the last in 2005. Ford also has competed in three U.S. Opens, making the cut in two. In addition, the man who began his golf career as a young caddie has played in five Senior PGA Championships and two U.S. Senior Opens. Ten times, the very strong Tri-State PGA Section has named Ford its Player of the Year, and in 1988 he accepted the award for being the PGA of America’s Professional Player of the Year, 12 months after the association had honored him as its Club Professional of the Year. Pretty heady stuff, to be sure, and no one was really surprised that in 2005 the PGA inducted Ford into its Golf Professional Hall of Fame.
“I don’t play tournaments as much as I once did, but I still have that desire to win, and I still believe I am going to win whenever I enter an event.” – Bob Ford
When one looks back on such a storied playing career and Ford’s ability to wear so many hats so well at the same time, one moment stands out from all the others.
That would be the time in 1983 when the then 29-year-old qualified for the U.S. Open being held at Oakmont. He not only made the cut of that year’s national championship and finished tied for 26th as he played before a hometown crowd but also managed to run the tournament’s merchandising operation at the same time.
And in those days, the host club professional oversaw that business and took all the financial risk, which meant that Ford carried a very different mental burden than his fellow competitors as he walked the course during the day. And instead of pounding balls on the range after his rounds, he retreated to his office to crunch numbers on his calculator.
Ford has not played in a U.S. Open for a while. But that does not mean he has given up competing. “I don’t play tournaments as much as I once did,” he says. “But I still have that desire to win, and I still believe I am going to win whenever I enter an event. But I also realize that I am not as good as I once was, even though I feel just as good. And I understand that when it comes to national tournaments, it’s just not a fair fight having a club professional like me go up against someone who plays and practices for a living. It’s as if the club professional has a knife, and the tour professional has a gun.”
It was the prospect of playing professionally that drove Ford as a young golfer. Born in Pittsburgh and raised in Philadelphia, he went to work as an assistant for then Oakmont head professional Lew Worsham after graduating from the University of Tampa in 1975 because he thought his new boss could help him accomplish that goal. After all, “The Chin,” as Worsham was affectionately called, knew what it took, having won six times in his playing career on the PGA Tour, including the 1947 U.S. Open.
So Ford spent five summers as an assistant at Oakmont, and when he wasn’t giving lessons or selling golf shirts, he was tending to a vegetable garden Worsham had established at the back of the practice range. Ford also made sure he teed it up a bunch, with his boss’ encouragement, winning the Tri-State Open his first year there. But not all was coming up roses, and Ford failed in his four attempts as an Oakmont assistant to make it through PGA Tour Q-School. He was dismayed, to be sure. But then club leaders at Oakmont asked him to take over as their head professional, after Worsham had retired. Ford assumed the top position in 1980, when he was only 25 years old.
Though he gave up his vision of competing regularly on the PGA Tour, Ford did not lose his passion for playing, and he entered dozens of sectional tournaments in the ensuing decades. He was good enough to have won a bunch, and to have qualified for 21 professional majors. And if you are looking for the strongest possible measuring stick of his talents as a PGA club professional on and of the course, consider that he played his way into nine of those majors while excelling at not one but two of the biggest jobs in golf.
Some form of retirement is looming for Ford, and he plans to leave Oakmont after it hosts the 2016 U.S. Open. But he has no plans to stop competing. “I’m already thinking about going over to play in the (Senior Open Championship) that summer, once the Open is over,” he says. “I have not played in one of those since 2004, and I know my chances are not very good. But you never know.”
Still a competitor after all these years, and a very strong one at that. His record and desire speak for themselves, and that is why he is our first Pro’s Pro.
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